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All hail the Queen

Aretha Franklin wows crowd at Blue Hills Bank Pavilion

Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

All hail the Queen
Aretha Franklin performed Friday at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion in Boston’s Seaport. (Photo: Photo: Courtesy Aretha Franklin)

Performing a career-spanning set of hits with power and joy at Blue Hills Bank Pavilion in Boston Friday night, Aretha Franklin held her audience in thrall.

Accompanied by the 23-member Aretha Franklin Orchestra and a quartet of fine backup singers — one man and three women — the Queen of Soul was regal without pomp and wore her mastery with ease.

Despite the occasional heavy-handed staging — two jumbo screens flanking the stage showed family photos, her visit with President Obama at the White House to receive the 2005 Presidential Medal of Freedom and movie clips intended to suit the songs — Franklin and her audience bonded from the start of the 90-minute show. Overpowering any distraction was Franklin and her soaring voice.

As the audience awaited her appearance, her first-rate orchestra performed an overture of sorts, vamping familiar melodies from her hits. After this instrumental prelude, Franklin’s master of ceremonies introduced her, announcing, “She holds 19 Grammys; the first female vocalist in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Rolling Stone magazine proclaimed her the greatest singer of all time.”

Out strode Franklin, wearing a gold-sequined dress and, rather than her usual fur pelt, a light grey jacket suited to the balmy evening. Smiling and relaxed, her hair short, she looked great.

Presiding with an expansive spirit, Franklin, 74, injected the feeling of a family affair into the concert, connecting generations of fans and drawing on her six-decade career with hits from the ’70s as well as covers of songs popularized by younger vocalists such as Whitney Houston and Adele.

Solid backing

Franklin alternated between ballads and songs with an irresistible dancing groove that pulled the audience out of their seats.

She enjoyed showcasing her backup singers and her orchestra’s deft musicians, who constituted a brass section of 10 local musicians, two percussionists, two drummers, a Fender Rhodes keyboard and Hammond B3 organ, a piano, and bass and electric guitars.

Introducing one song, Franklin recalled a phone call from Stevie Wonder, who told her, “Have I got a song for you!” It was “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do).” While singing its lilting lyrics, Franklin gestured with her hands to mimic a persistent lover who is tapping on a windowpane and knocking on a door.

A few couples near the front danced slowly while Franklin sang “Ain’t No Way,” which she injected with gospel music fervor and authority.

As she launched “Chain of Fools,” a trio of young dancers sprang onto the stage. Wearing sleek red outfits, the girls appeared to be having the time of their lives as they performed a routine that echoed the great synchronized dancing tradition of ’60s R&B bands.

After about a half hour, Franklin took a brief break. Her orchestra performed a musical interlude, delivering virtuoso solos in a jazz vein. A few minutes later, Franklin returned, now without her jacket. She asked the audience the same question they would have asked her, “How do you feel?” With a roar of applause, she resumed with an Adele cover (“Rolling in the Deep”) and then, singing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” thrust her microphone toward the audience and invited all to join her on its chorus.

As Franklin sang “Call Me,” her three dancers returned in slinky red gowns to accompany her. Franklin exhorted the audience to “watch their every move — I taught them all they know.”

On the keys

Changing the tempo, Franklin rendered “Something He Can Feel,” taking her time with it and along the way, introducing soloists in the orchestra. She then took over at the piano and accompanied herself to “Inseparable,” a tribute to both Natalie Cole and Prince. Continuing at the keyboard, Franklin segued into Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water,” testifying along the way with vocal cries interwoven with a wild organ solo. After concluding the song, the sublime high of the evening, Franklin paused and wept.

She then led the audience into clapping backup of “Freeway of Love” while sashaying across the stage. Franklin closed with one of her most enduring anthems, “Respect.”